In this five-part series, comedians and humorists write about their experiences with the grieving process and its effect on their comedy. Today comedian and writer Sofiya Alexandra writes about her grandfather’s sickness, and how it made her value comedy.
The Bygone Bureau: Tell us a little about your loved one. Did this person inform your comedic sensibility? In what way?
Sofiya Alexandra: The first joke I remember making me laugh was by my grandfather, who’s a Russian sailor. A guest pointed to a giant shell he kept on a dresser, and asked what it was. “Family toilet,” he deadpanned without missing a beat. I almost peed my five-year-old pants.
Born and raised in Odessa, Ukraine, which is widely known in the former USSR as the capital of humor, he volunteered for World War II at eighteen after his father was killed, and then sailed around the world as a merchant marine and electrician for the next forty years. His stories of crossing the Amazon, standing up to Jew-hating Communist party heads, and escaping death on the battlefield have kept me dazzled since I was a little kid. He’s the funniest and most charismatic person I’ve ever met.
Growing up without a father, my grandfather was a total badass whom I idolized. We shared a defiant spirit, and a sharp tongue. Whenever my mother said ‘no’ to bangs or getting my ears pierced, I’d wait until I was over at my grandparents’ for the weekend, and my grandfather would inevitably take me to violate the forbidden.
Back then, I had no idea I would end up a comedian or a writer, but I was learning how to tell a joke and enrapture a room with every story he told. My connection to Odessa, where I spent the first eleven years of my life, and my identity, both cultural and professional, are tied up in my grandfather’s stories and jokes. In my family, I most identify with him. He is my heart, which is why it’s so sad to see him on the last leg of his journey.
Can you tell a short (maybe funny, maybe not) anecdote that encapsulates this person? Has thinking about the events of this story changed for you in the grief process, and if so, how?
I always ask my grandfather to tell me stories, but I remember one of the first times I asked him to tell me one, when I was very little.
“Tell me about the war,” I asked. He thought for a couple of seconds. He had volunteered to fight in World War II when he was seventeen, which seemed to young me to be romantic and old-fashioned and adventurous, like War and Peace, or the mini-series I liked to watch on TV.
Well, there was this young kid in my battalion, I mean we were all young, but this good-looking blonde kid, real good heart, a Russian kid. We were next to each other in the trench, and it was really coming down out there, just heavy fire and shells bursting everywhere, and he looks at me and says, “Villi, you’re one lucky bastard, how about we switch places, huh?” I shrugged, because you know, one place is as good as another to me, so we switched. Not a couple minutes later a grenade explodes, and I look over at the kid, and his face is so white, like a sheet, and I grab his shoulder and I say, “Hey, you alright?” And the kid kind of slides down, and his guts fall out. Of his back. I thought he was just scared, but his guts are just falling out of his back and I know he’s not gonna make it. And he smiles and says, “I guess you really are a lucky son of a bitch,” and he dies.
Then my grandfather looked at me and picked his nose. Holy crap, I thought. I just wanted to hang out and get to know him better, not get my soul fucked.
“Did you feel bad about it, grandpa?” I asked breathlessly.
He shrugged. “Why should I, he’s the one that wanted to switch!”
That’s my grandfather in a nutshell. His sense of humor is what got him through the toughest parts of his life, and it is my inheritance. It is ironic yet fitting that it is what’s getting me through losing him.
Describe your experience with grief a little. Did it interrupt your desire to write or tell jokes? If so, in what way? When did that desire return, if it did. What happened that made it come back?
It’s been very weird and kind of impossible to keep things compartmentalized. The sadness and worry of that part of your life start to bleed into the other parts of your life, like work, which for me right now is writing, performing, and auditioning.
A couple of weeks ago I had an audition and a callback for the same commercial in one day, and in the hours between my aunt and I were looking at different rehab centers/convalescent homes for my grandfather to be transferred to from the hospital. It was the most surreal thing, walking into a brightly lit room and trying to make people laugh by pretending to be a mean cashier and sell water at the same time, and then driving a couple of miles to a place that smells like death and where the moans of the people make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and all you can think about is, “These people are just like me, and one day that will be me, and we are all dying every day.”
And then you drive to a bar in Hollywood and tell jokes about Beyonce and 2 Chainz and try not to shoot yourself in the face while you realize how ridiculous all of life is. Sometimes because I’m so emotionally raw I really connect with the audience and kill, but other times I’m rattled and my timing is off, and I’m maybe too emotionally messed up to go up so I don’t do that great, but I’m always happy I did. Always.
And ultimately, the perspective you get on your life and consequentially comedy from grief is great and valuable. It’s just that you pay the ultimate price to receive it, and those two things are hard to hold in your heart at the same time.
How has experiencing grief changed the way you think about comedy in general or certain jokes in particular? How is it different, and how is it the same? Are there any sorts of jokes that you were comfortable with before that you aren’t now, or vice versa?
I don’t think my relationship to comedy or particular jokes has changed since my grandfather’s been sick. If anything, I just value comedy even more; I find it precious and eternal. All different kinds of comedy, too, from the frivolous to the deep, just the manufacturing of words to produce joy is more valuable to me than ever. Jokes are the cold wet nose on a dog, it’s how we know the dog is healthy. When my grandfather is joking, I know everything is fine, the tension in the bodies of his daughters vanishes, and we are all just there in the moment, together. There are no hospital beds, no urine smell, no planning, no pills. In that moment there is no time or place, only joy.
Illness and aging are all about time, time that can be a great healer but becomes a great destroyer. Laughter is perhaps the only antidote we humans have, the time stopper and the moment freezer, and we are so lucky to have it.
It’s been sometimes said that humor comes from pain. Has any comedy writing come directly out of your experience with the loss of a loved one? Is there anything funny about death or grief, whether in the abstract or in your personal experience?
Of course I agree with that, I mean, otherwise there would be no comedians at all. There are definitely some funny things about death and dying. For me, I think one of the difficult things about watching someone age is that things do not stop being funny, they just also become tragic. My grandfather has shit himself unexpectedly in front of me, and it was hilarious. But him being robbed of his dignity was tragic. And life is both. The contrast can really take your breath away, and sometimes you laugh and cry at the same time.
The other day I was hanging out with my grandfather at his rehab, and it had been a grim week. He wasn’t in the mood to talk or joke around and the atmosphere felt oppressive. “I don’t remember anything anymore,” he sighed. I fed him some lunch and then he said, “When you were really little, maybe about five, I picked you up from school and took you to a restaurant and told you to order whatever you want and you got tziplenok tabaka (a Georgian preparation of chicken). Then later, when I dropped you off at your mom’s you stage-whispered to her, ‘Mom, he bought me my own chicken and it was 18 rubles! 18 rubles, did you hear me?’”
The story made me laugh – I mean, the reason I was so impressed is because we were poor, which isn’t that hilarious, but still, this was a piece of me and him I didn’t have before. I carefully wrapped it and put it in the place in my brain where all of my precious grandfather memories are.
“That was a great story, grandpa,” I told him. “And you said you didn’t remember anything anymore!”
“Well, I remember everything that stays in the soul,” he said. How beautiful, I thought.
Then he ripped the longest loudest fart I have ever heard in my life. We laughed our faces off.